Friday 21 April 2023

Host - IX (2023)

Country: UK
Style: Alternative
Rating: 6/10
Release Date: 24 Feb 2023
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Mentions of Paradise Lost in my review of the Black Harvest album yesterday prompted me to take a look to see what they're up to lately. I'm up to date with their primary releases, having reviewed their 2020 album, Obsidian, but they've apparently been indulging in some side projects, guitarist Gregor Mackintosh in particular. He'd already formed one side band, Vallenfyre, who played death metal and put out three albums, but they split up in 2018, the same year he formed Strigoi to play a crustier form of death. Now, to shift in an opposite musical direction, he's teamed with Paradise Lost vocalist Nick Holmes to go back to their synthwave era with Host.

I have no idea why the debut Host album is called IX. Of course, the seventh Paradise Lost album, a synth-driven release, was called Host. Of course, the band have famously disowned their eighth as it was not their musical vision at the time. While they absolutely stood by Host, they called out the interference of their record label in the making of Believe in Nothing as removing their control of their own music. Therefore, I could see this being an alternate history follow-up to Host, as if they had never made Believe in Nothing, but that would make this VIII rather than IX. Maybe they're a little more onboard with it nowadays and see this as a continuation of the sound from those two.

While I've been a Paradise Lost fan since their demo days, I never really took to their EMI albums. I adore One Second, which was just as commercial, but Host and Believe in Nothing felt much more sanitised and this follows suit. There's little warmth here and little emotion, Holmes remaining in a more subdued voice throughout. There are escalations, because Paradise Lost is always great at escalations, playing softer or less dense sections of songs and then launching into magnificent hooks like a xenomorph erupting from the chest of its, well, host. However, they're often subdued too, as if these are demo versions polished enough to hand over to the rest of the band to add the bass and real drums but not yet ready for release.

The earlier songs do this most obviously, especially the opening trio—Wretched Soul, Tomorrow's Sky and Divine Emotion—which all fit that demo mindset. What's odd is that they're clearly good songs. This isn't Mackintosh and Holmes writing lesser material. It's more like they're distilling an array of good songs down towards their essence, excising the crunch and stripping away the tones they invented for doom/death and gothic metal. If that sounds like Paradise Lost lite, then that's precisely where I'm at with about half of these songs. I want to hear the finished versions with all the power restored that the band deliver time and time again. In the meantime, I'm hearing the recognisable melodies and key changes so quintessential to their sound.

However, the others, especially late in the album, including the closing trio—Inquisition, Instinct and I Ran—feel more complete. They're also good songs, but they feel more like they were meant to be driven by synths and play in a softer, more impersonal way. I Ran is elevated by a tasty guitar solo, but I never felt like these later songs needed a guitar. They work as they are, including those patented Paradise Lost escalations, without the usual means to deliver them. The earliest of the naturally keyboard-driven songs is Hiding from Tomorrow, especially while it grows, which it does with some serious style.

And so this is half successful for me and half not so much, but the songs remain good throughout. I wonder if they'll tour as Host or incorporate some of these into Paradise Lost sets, perhaps making them heavier and more substantial as full band songs. Maybe they'll do neither, but they'll keep at this approach on the side. It certainly feels like this is a continuation of an earlier sound that they miss as much as something new that they want to explore. The only way to really do both of those things is to keep going and see where it takes them.

And, while I'm always going to prefer their other eras, as epitomised by Gothic, Draconian Times and One Second, not to forget Obsidian, over their EMI albums, I'm happy to tag along and see if this side project ends up generating something to stand alongside them. It hasn't yet and part of that is that the imagery accompanying this release seems highly appropriate because it takes all the colour out of a notably colourful band. If that's the point, then they've succeeded but I feel it needs something new to replace it.

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